While in the Canadian Rockies


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 “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

[John Muir]


Up At 9000 Feet

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IMG_0094 IMG_0097 IMG_0138 IMG_0148 IMG_0157 IMG_0179 IMG_0203 IMG_0215 IMG_0230IMG_0241IMG_0293 IMG_0316 IMG_0325The dogs and I topped out at nearly 9000ft the other evening, just in time to have our sweat cooled by a strong wind and our hearts devoured by a righteous sunset.  It was a perfect night to get out and fall even more deeply in love with the land here.

I stayed up high for a little too long and made my way back down the steep face of Scout Mountain in the stumbling dusky hours, tripping through sagebrush and talus fields on wobbly knees and ankles, spooked witless by grouse bursting out of the brush beneath my feet.  It was worth it though, it always is.  By the way, have you heard the ruffies drumming in your neck of the woods.  A drumming ruffed grouse is one of my very favorite sounds in nature — it transports me directly back to the wide and wild arms of my childhood.  There’s no sound like it and it turns the key in the lock of my feral little heart.  I hear the drumming and something inside of me howls and shakes its mane.


I haven’t officially told you yet, but due to some housing technicalities (namely, the LCITW is no longer available for rent), I am not moving to the Methow this summer with Robert!  Thankfully, no, gloriously, Robert cannot begin work until June 16th due to some other technicalities.  Since it feels like summer here already, I will inform you of the fact that we are enjoying, so very much, our first partial summer together in seven years!  We are rafting, hiking, camping and gardening galore as well as sipping gin and tonics, taking evening bike rides, and doing lots of dreaming about what we want to do with our lives.

I love to dream with him.

We feel lucky, time feels precious, no one beats at the big bass drum of my heart like he does.

Jottings From The River


We are sleeping in a canyon in Wyoming tonight after driving truck and raft up a rugged two track.  The walls that surround us are constructed of red rubble, bone and tooth, juniper and sage.

Immediately, upon our arrival, I pointed at the top of the canyon and said “Let’s walk up there!”  So we did.  About one hundred meters from the truck, while scrambling up a boulder, I placed my hand directly beside a huge impression in damp, crimson dirt.  I knew just what it was, an enormous paw print from a big old tom.  I called Robbie over and pointed at it.  His response was, “That is a very big lion and a fresh print too.  There’s been rain or snow here in the past 12 hours.”  Then, we walked on.  He and I are good at seeing things.  Tracking things.  Noticing tufts of hair, half prints of hooves or paws in dirt and dust, bald patches of earth beneath brush where upland game has been digging and bathing.  We see it all and make note of it.  It is good for the soul to see deeply.

We walked and walked, watched for elk sheds, pointed out antelope and mule deer in the distance, called out different animal signs to each other when we were separated by cliffs and clumps of juniper, followed a band of mustangs for a bit, scrambled, explored little caves, sat in nooks, watched the night rise up in the East and the last of the sun blaze the stone beneath our feet to dusty blood.  The whole time we walked, I was aware of that big, male mountain lion out there, aware of the fact that he was probably watching us from his perch, from his lair, from the dusky den he calls his own — from his throne.  He is king of that canyon; when I first laid eyes on his paw print, my hackles rose up and my heart told me so.  So I walked those ridge lines with Robert and a dog, I walked confidently but respectfully, impossibly aware.


In the morning, the drive out was a mucky affair across red dirt roads turned to slippery stew by late spring snowstorms.  Our heavy Dodge with a trailer in tow was squirrely in the thick, soupy slick of it so we drove slow and I didn’t mind.  The antelope were dotting the hillsides, curious, fleet, and too numerous to count which was encouraging for us as we put in for two antelope tags in this area come fall.  We pray to be drawn, not only to hunt so that we might eat, but because we want to hike the hills and ridge lines here, enjoy the canyons, climb up and down the steep arroyos, and simply explore the space we are passing through.  This is God’s country; our very notion of heaven on earth; we want to be tied to the earth here by blood, bone and sinew.


Near the highway, oh joy!  I spotted my first badger, which comes as a shock as I have lived the majority of my life (at this point) on the great northern plains of Canada.  While I have seen a handful of wolverine in my life, never has a badger come my way.  We pulled off so we could watch him, first through binoculars, then we hiked out to his dirt mound and watched closer as he curiously poked his head out of his hole to survey our presence.  What a critter.  What luck!


We have launched the raft and the river is as beautiful as ever.  The canyon positively churning with perhaps the most holy bird chorus I have ever heard; diverse and musical as only the song of the wild can be.  Oh!  The descending scale of the canyon wren song!


Whenever I am on the water, I wonder how I ever managed to make myself leave in the first place.  I was raised in boats, crisscrossing the rivers and chain lakes of Manitoba and Saskatchewan by canoe.  The slap of water on the freeboard of a boat suits me.  The effortless work of a waterway, the buoyancy of our raft upon the curious composition of water as it courses through a stone channel, ever flowing towards lower ground makes such great sense to my bones, to my soul.  I must have watery marrow.


My first fish comes in at 15 inches; a long, slim rainbow, a classic catch for the Green River.  What a beauty.  Three more after that at 14 and 15 inches respectively, then I take the oars and let Robert do some casting.  It’s such a beautiful afternoon.


The morning is bright, the birds began before sunrise.  I woke up to them, listened for a while and then drifted back to sleep.  Robert rose early to fish the eddy in front of our campsite.  I can hear the channel narrowing to a textbook set of rapids just down from camp.  The water flows smoothly into an elongated, elegant V, white water riffling around the edges and then rising into beautiful, rolling haystacks.  I’d love to live on a river sometime and constantly hear the water in summer, steady music in the evenings to accompany the hum of night bugs.  Then also, the sound of the ice in winter, popping and cracking, splitting and fusing, shuffling and fussing along the shoreline.  Yes.  I’d like to live on a river sometime, here in the interior West.IMG_0580IMG_0586

Beavers are good swimmers.  I mean, they are sleek as they paddle which is always surprising to me since they look rather like ambulatory anthills while on land.  We had a nice time watching two beavers for hours this morning since we are in no hurry to get on the water.  It was especially nice to watch those funny animals since the clarity of the water here allows us to watch them swim under the surface should we stand at a good vantage point on the bank, or the cliffs above the water.  Tater was overjoyed to swim out to them, play a sort of game of tag (which he invariably looses as he has not yet mastered the submersion technique swimming sometimes requires).  It is fun to watch him paddle though, his movement is swift and smooth, even against the current, he looks as good as the animals he is chasing out there which is no doubt why we have always referred to him as “The Little Beaver” whenever he spends hours in a lake or river paddling about like a little fool.IMG_0465

I washed my hair and face with a bit of lavender soap this morning.  I laid down across a rock on the flat of my stomach and dipped the river onto my hair with a titanium cook cup.  I found myself immediately transported to my youth and all the times I chose to wash my hair in freezing cold rivers and lakes — cold enough to give what we used to term “brain freezes”.  How many times have I washed my hair in frigid waters while out canoeing or rafting?

The result is always the same after a shampoo in a wild river or lake; a sudden and vigorous freshness presses its way into and through you. A wash in a lake, a cold lake or river, on a hot morning under vermillion cliffs — now that may be the only thing to challenge a stout cup of coffee.  Robert tells me the water is about 44F.  Nippy, indeed.IMG_0549IMG_0537

Rainbow trout for dinner with a bit of coconut oil, fresh lemon slices and garlic — asparagus and roasted potatoes to accompany — all cooked over an open fire and delicious down to the last crumb.  Tater was given the fins, tail and skin as a treat and spent a good five minutes whining for more afterwards.  Fresh, wild caught fish is something I would eat every single day if I had the opportunity.

We have dropped anchor on a sandbar, one of the few on this section of the river.  Robert is fishing the pool on the backside of the eddy where the river seems to push all of the delicious little surface bugs and nymphs into a deep emerald pocket.  We can see the fish lipping and slurping bugs off the river top.  Their fins weaving the surface into smears of minute, contradictory rings of disturbed water.  These fish are thriving.  It’s like an all you can eat buffet here.  Tater Tot is perched like a gentleman on the edge of the boat, awaiting my command to head for shore — thrilled into yips of excitement each time Robert sets a hook and brings a fish to hand.  I am splayed like a lizard in the sun while I jot thoughts into my notebook.

The wind has come up this morning making casting a challenge at times.  It changes direction periodically and is inconsistent, sometimes blowing softly, other times passing over us in strong gales.  Each time it ceases all together we hear ourselves sigh aloud.  It’s a relief.


I got out of the boat for a while to do some land lubbing and walked up to the top of an arid ridge line.  It is hot out today, especially in clumps of juniper where the wind is stopped by a wall of conifer.  It is hot enough that snakes should be active.  I thought about this and stopped walking up the ridge for a moment.  I thought about rattlesnakes, one of the only things I am truly afraid of in this world after nearly four years of trauma in the low desert of Arizona.  When I realized I had stopped walking and it was because of fear, I slapped the palms of my hands down on my thighs, as if to punish my legs for their stillness, and said, “Jillian, damn the fear.”  And I kept walking.  I’m glad I did.  There are oceans of cacti gardens on the slopes of those ridges and all are blooming or on the brink of blooming and it is a beautiful sight, indeed.


An osprey, one of two we have been watching for a few miles, is flying up river toward where we are parked.  It moves on slow wing beats, stopping to hover from time to time as it tracks fish.  It suddenly, though expectedly, plunged into the river, fully submerged for a moment while grasping onto a trout with its talons.  We estimate the fish was at least seventeen inches long.  We watched the bird grapple with its load, beat its wings mightily and then finally heave itself out of the water only to drop the fish after a few wing beats.  The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak!  The fish was too big for the bird to manage.   I can see the osprey now flying slowly alongside pine studded red cliffs and can only imagine it must be attempting to dry off in the rising hot air that comes off the face of the stone here.IMG_0745

The river becomes a consistent part of daily life.  We ride the water, it holds our gear aloft, we catch our dinner from its quiet pools, we wash our hands in it, we boil pots of it for our meals, fill our drinking containers with it once it is purified.  First thing in the morning, we heat it and brew our tea with it.  The water is everything.

When I hear the river drip off the blades of our oars and then return, with precision and joy, to the greater thing it came from, I hear home.




I caught a pair of brown trout for dinner tonight, both about 13 inches in length — real nice fish elsewhere but small, skinny things for the Green River.  The flesh of the brown trout cooks up in a peachy orange hue, similar to salmon.  Dinner was fantastic.  I fed one of the fish to Tater Tot, deboned, with his regular ration of kibble.  In our estimation, he is running and swimming between fifteen and twenty miles a day and though he is thin and tired,  he does not quit moving, ever, until we all go to bed.  There are ducks to chase, the sound of rising fish on the river to swim towards, and now sagebrush covered hills to inspect for quail.  He is a busy dog, ever driven by his desire to hunt and explore.

We seem to have a rhythm now.  Rob rises earlier than I and gets water going for breakfast while I tend to dinner in the evenings.  I like it, both the pattern of our river days and cooking dinner over our fires.IMG_0746

There seems to be at least four great blue herons on each bend of the river here.  Last night, right before we reached a place to camp, we saw a pair awkwardly building a nest high up in a scraggly old dead ponderosa pine on the riverbank.  What I assume was the female bird, was carefully and delicately weaving a nest of brittle river driftwood together — a stick as long as her legs and forked at the tip would not weave like she wanted it too.  She was so specific in the engineering of her cradle while her husband stood behind her, lanky and blue in the dusk of evening.  It was a beautiful sight and we craned our necks long after passing it to continue watching the homemaking efforts of those beautiful birds.


This morning, a pair of bald eagles on a nesting platform.  Between the adults we could see three chicks, past the fuzzy chicklet phase of life, covered in black grey teenaged feathers with great curving beaks on the tips of their sooty faces.  We took turns with the binoculars as we floated past their sky high castle.  It was one of the best views I have ever had of bald eagle chicks.  They were dreadfully awkward looking little beauties.  We talked of them long after we passed them, so much we cherished the sighting.


Glory be!  I saw two Western tanagers today!  They appeared on different sections of the river but the plumage was unmistakable — bombastic tangerine heads fading into canary yellow bodies with dark wings.  Exquisite and exotic creatures.  I feel lucky.  Also, one little mad hatter goldfinch in the willows by the tent.  A chipper little thing.  I read somewhere that this river hosts a hummingbird migration at some point in the springtime.  I would love to experience it.IMG_0758IMG_0899IMG_0919


Fishing is like any sort of gambling; one truly believes that the next cast will bring the glorious jackpot of a wild fish to hand.  We cast over and over again and when we do bring a fish to hand we say, “I knew it.  I knew that cast was the one.  I could feel it in my bones.”  Robert and I are addicted.


We are sharing Swallow Canyon with a huge batch of pelicans.  Robert rows us closer and closer to them.  We know at some point they will rise up in a flurry of wings, raising their awkwardly proportioned bodies into thin air, folding their necks into a position required by flight.  How is it that something so silly looking can be so graceful in the sky?  I cannot wait for the moment when they lift off the water as one and soar past us in a storm of white against red canyon walls.  We are nearly at our takeout point now and I don’t want this trip to be over, this week to be over, the spring to be over.  There’s too much living and sharing to be done.


A missed opportunity (A.K.A.  A Photograph of the Heart):  On the drive home, while crossing the southwest corner of Wyoming, headed straight into a black spring squall with a strong headwind beating on the hood of the truck and a dash of hail, to boot — we looked to our left to see a herd of at least fifty mustangs in every color imaginable grazing on a side slope on the edge of a deep canyon, backlit by a stormy sky, manes and tails whipped by the storm.  I will never forget that view and shall be haunted for my entire life by the missed opportunity to photograph it, but am secretly happy the view was ours alone.  We’ll remember it as long as we live.


While Up On The East Bench


I am a bird on a perch overlooking my mountain valley.  The wind is a force.  I watch the clouds fly by on their strange, invisible currents and think to myself the only thing faster than the pronghorn of the interior West are the shadows cast by clouds as they gallop across the ridge lines on any windy day, reducing the land at my feet to patchwork of lightness and dark, as living as any living thing, zoetic and wild.IMG_9844

I am out scampering on the East Bench, above the Portneuf Valley, and am high enough now that I can see clearly in all directions, across the unfolding ranges in this corner of Idaho, and beyond, almost to Wyoming in the East, that wind bitten state and its glorious high desert, wide valleys and micro-ranges I often find myself daydreaming about.

It is expansive.

It is hard to believe that the planet does not lay out in a rumpled, irregular line, infinite and rolling forever into the new space of itself and beyond any points of possible exploration.  I feel alone.  I turn my back on town where it lays like shards of carefully arranged salt and pepper on a river valley floor.  I look to the sky and anchor myself in the wildness I see there.


I want to write something smart today but I know if I try too hard I’ll sound pretentious, or worse, silly.  So I let the words fly out of my pen and let my thoughts and feelings lead me out into deeper space.  I don’t want to claim to find dichotomy where it does not exist.  Today I am black and white but there is no divergence between those gradients, no strange blend of grey where those two tones meet in me, turn to mud, and gradually branch into separate entities.  I am merely composed of the two certain ends of the spectrum, solid terminal points where white is as pure and strong as its opposite, black.  There is a delicious certainty in absolutes.  Today, grey is for the bellies of the clouds.

Lately, I have pondered at how much life needs death and how much death needs life; the seamless transition between those opposite realms, the interchange of energy and molecules that coast in and out of the world of the living (though never dead unto themselves), always returning as new things, new pieces to intricate puzzles.  I think about the reincarnation that occurs constantly in the molecular and cellular realm.

A plant is alive.  A plant dies.  A plant is reduced to molecules and minerals and energies.  A plant becomes a new thing and so on and so forth until the wildflowers are built of bonemeal and our marrow is made of Indian paintbrush.  When this body fades away, what will my microcosmic pieces become?  Even now I fade, I lose a blond hair and it drifts off into the breeze.  I shed a skin cell, it lodges itself in a stone crevice.  I shed a tear, and the salts of my body are absorbed by the earth.  Already, I am a part of it all.  This is alive.  This is dead.  Somewhere in it all is holiness, a great plan, the promise that my pieces are enduring and always part of a great whole.  I am already turning to wildflowers.  Is it enough to be momentarily beautiful on a mountain slope, bracing against the spring wind, the purple burning out of my petals as the days grow longer, food for a mule deer, meal for marrow?  And what of my spirit?  And what of my soul?  Into what Great Hand do I commit myself — the wispy thing that remains once all else has turned to lupins and larkspur?  Oh.  I know.

I know.

I feel my mind whirl.  I lay my head back against a stone and look up at the sky where the clouds are white bastions of a larger, greater thing — holy and swirling on their way to the East, propelled by the supernatural power of the wind, islands in a great, wide open blue.  I see stray raindrops, plummeting towards my upturned face. Each one that strikes my skin is a shock, a gentle surprise.  The raindrops turn slushy and then comes a smattering of small hail pellets.  Still I sit with my face turned upwards.  I am receiving a benediction.  I fold my hands in my lap and close my eyes in prayer.  This isolated flurry will pass as quickly as it arrived.  I keep sitting in my stone nook, sheltered from the wind, feeling the heat of intermittent spring sunshine warm my legs through my jeans.  The black ink of my pen runs and smudges when the rain strikes the pages of my journal and still, I sit tight, allow the pages to flutter in the wind, as though each one is animated and awaiting the conversation that drips from my pen tip.  So I sit up straight, push my back into stone, and continue to write, to find meaning in everything, to answer the questions I ask of myself and my world.  And slowly, the answers come.